2019 Next Stage Festival Review: Dinner with the Duchess (The Duchess Collective)

Fame. Power. Sexism. Dinner with the Duchess explores a lot of subject matter that usually doesn’t fly at the dinner table, but it’s delivery is so unflinching that you may not even blink during this 90-minute show. On as part of the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival, The Duchess Collective presents a thought-provoking and layered story about artistic passion, and its cost.

Set in the swanky Toronto condo, a retired violin virtuoso Margaret, better known as the titular Duchess, gives the final interview of her career, telling her side of the story regarding the events leading up to her retirement. In writer Nick Green’s sharp script, banter flows quickly and freely, with lines that seem like a joke one moment becoming the setup for tragic and surprising reveals the next.

Allegra Fulton stuns in the lead role, giving us a charismatic, witty, and tragically tightly-wound protagonist. Watching her shed layer after layer of pathos until the vulnerable, emotional core is exposed is a treat, especially in live performance. She fills the room with a grand and terrifying energy that made it nearly impossible to take one’s eyes off her.

David Jansen plays her long-suffering but supportive spouse, providing a stabilizing and humbling element to the energy on stage. Although I didn’t feel excited when we first meet him, his matter-of-fact humour and sly attempts to keep Margaret in line made him grow on me. Rosie Simon, playing the ambitious young reporter who takes on the task of profiling one of her heroes, has possibly the hardest job of the cast of three. Her line of questioning not only propels the plot, but also cements her character as the only sane one in the room. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I found myself rooting for her as she dug for the truth about this strange, eccentric and quarreling couple.

While the script is a rich character study that gave the actors plenty to play with, the suspense felt somewhat manufactured. It isn’t shocking to discover the heroine’s diva-like tendencies. Although the story is thoughtful and avoids easy answers, leaving it up to the audience to consider what is justifiable and who, if anyone, the “bad guy” is.

The polished and clever wordsmithing of the first half unfortunately doesn’t make it to the end. We’re sent off with a gorgeous monologue that shows off the Duchess’ full emotional range, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the character that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves.  This show would probably be a lot more punchy with even just a few minutes shaved off the runtime.

Still, Dinner with the Duchess is worth watching just to marvel at how real the cast is. Even in my capacities as a reviewer, I struggle to find a better word to convey just how authentic and engaging these performers were.


Photo of Allegra Fulton provided by the company